The Making of Red China: A Historiographical Analysis of the Chinese Civil War

Chinese Civil War: Cultural Revolution

Throughout history civil war has been a catalyst for radical upheavals and major paradigm shifts in many societies. Civil wars are often the physical manifestations of ideological battles, battles of ideas, each competing for power. Consequently civil wars have the potential to bring about a new socio-political order in society, yet in order for this to be accomplished; the existing power structure must be sufficiently weakened and susceptible to change. Civil wars and the revolutions in thinking which instigate them, require a power vacuum in order to grow and be successful. The conditions for upheaval were present in Chinese society due to the fall of the dynastic system and the influx of new ways of thinking from abroad. The lack of a strong central authority left the ship of state without a helmsman, causing it to drift out of control due to tumultuous societal currents, bringing about almost forty years of successive revolutions and massive bloodshed.

The emergence of a Communist China in 1949 significantly altered the course of geo-politics for the next half century. China emerged as a competing source of authority in the Communist world leading to the Sino-Soviet split, a split which was exploited by President Richard Nixon’s ‘Ping-Pong’ politics, that led to the opening up of China. With retrospection, the emergence of a Communist China was a highly unlikely event, considering that China like Russia was unsuited for a Marxist revolution, with both lacking a capitalistic societal structure, large proletariat or developed bourgeoisie.

The Chinese Civil war was the product of the long standing undercurrent of societal dissatisfaction in China. This dissatisfaction led to China’s last emperor Pu Yi being ousted from power in 1911. On January 1st 1912 Sun-Yat-sen, long-time dissident and advocate of political and social reform, was appointed the first provisional president of the Republic of China. Sun’s sudden death in 1925 lead to an internal power struggle in which Chiang Kai-Shek emerged as the new leader of Sun’s Kuomintang Party (KMT) due to his control over the Whampoa Military Academy and subsequently virtually all of the military. Chiang used his influence to invoke martial law after accusing KMT leftists and Communists of conspiring against the state. This action and the purge of communists which followed it inevitably led to a split between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the KMT who had been in an uneasy alliance since 1923.

General Chiang Kai-Shek

The physical separation of the CCP and the KMT also marked an ideological division, with both parties opting to follow different social policies and military tactics, yet still striving for the same goal: a unified China under one party. Effective policies are the product of solid leadership; a mantra which the CCP followed throughout the conflict. Mao embodied the notion of a strong leader who through his clairvoyance could rally people to him and organise them into an effective force. Dick Wilson argues that the beginnings of the policies which would lead to the Communist victory can be seen in Mao’s opposition to the orthodoxy of Comintern doctrine, preferring instead to tailor Marxist theory with Chinese socio-political realities, a policy that would define Mao’s leadership.

Historian Steven Levine counters this claim by arguing that Mao’s pragmatism was more a reaction to the unfavourable conditions faced by the Communist party in the late 1920s and 1930s. After Chiang’s White Terror campaign of 1927 which saw Communists killed and driven from their traditional power bases in industrial and urban areas, they needed to redefine themselves in ordered to win support amongst the rural population, for as Levine states “they were an urban party sojourning in the countryside.” Shaun Breslin supports Levin’s claim in which he states that Mao’s focus on proletariat wisdom instead of ideological dogmatism and his opposition to the notion of revolutionary cadres was based on the rural environment he now found himself in; a place characterized by common sense thinking and collective cooperation.

Despite Mao’s pragmatism and rhetorical skills, foreign relations with the USSR and the USA remained cool. This was due to the fact that most nations viewed the KMT as the official government of China. The KMT enjoyed support from both the USA and the USSR, a rarity in 20th century international relations, whereas the CCP received little to no support from foreign powers. For example Chiang met with Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin in 1923, with Stalin in turn directing Soviet propaganda to prop up Chiang’s prestige and legitimacy, thus helping Chiang’s meteoric rise during the 1920s. In contrast Mao’s attempts to visit with Stalin during the late 1940s were repeatedly rebuffed, with Stalin citing delays and using nebulous excuses like that ‘harvest work’ was keeping him and other top officials preoccupied. This lack of foreign aid resulted in the CCP having to rely on the political power it accumulated domestically as well the influence of leaders in China, factors which gave the Party legitimacy, especially considering that many viewed Chiang as a puppet of foreign powers.

Mao Zedong

Chiang and Mao may certainly have been the main driving forces behind their respective parties, yet both the KMT and CCP leadership consisted of other high ranking officials, all of whom helped shape their parties and influence the outcome of the war. Zhou Enlai, the secretary of the First Front Army and the political commissar of the CCP, was heavily involved in efforts to restructure the Red Army as well as in promoting a unified anti-Japanese front during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Enlai was a skilled diplomat, and was instrumental in achieving peace with the KMT’s North-Eastern Army led by long time KMT ally Marshall Zhang. Benjamin Yang argues that Zhou Enlai’s frank and sincere manner of speaking and his constant focus on the party line and CCP policies during negotiations, greatly contributed to the eventual Communist victory.

Enlai’s diplomatic brilliance was demonstrated with his dealings with the aforementioned Marshall Zhang. Not only did Zhou Enlai manage to create a truce with one of the oldest allies of the KMT, but Marshall Zhang was so taken by Enlai’s enigmatic persona, that he opened up ammunition and food trade routes with the Communists and donated 20,000 silver dollars as a personal gift to the Red Army. Zhang and members of the North-Eastern Army were stationed immediately adjacent to areas controlled by the Japanese, and considered fighting the Japanese a higher priority. Enlai utilized this to the fullest, by establishing good relations with Zhang whose forces had surrounded the Red Army in Xian, and who later refused to fight the Communists, arguing that the Japanese were the main threat. Zhang’s insistence on the Japanese threat eventually led him and KMT leader Yang Hucheng to kidnap Chiang, only releasing after he vowed to focus on the Japanese – thereby giving the CCP critical breathing space and potentially saving it from defeat at the hands of the KMT.

Whereas the CCP maximized the potential of their leaders, the KMT while possessing individuals with impeccable leadership capabilities, did not utilise them, with promising individuals falling victim to internal politics and political manoeuvring. Liu argues that the victory of the CCP was in part due to Chiang’s tendency to delegate, and the mismanagement of leadership potential within the KMT. This mismanagement is exemplified by the career of Pai Chung-hsi, one of the two vice-chief commanders in the Nationalist army. Chung-hsi was highly regarded in international military circles as a brilliant strategist and highly skilled field commander, with Edgar Snow commenting that he was “…one of the most intelligent and efficient commanders boasted by any army in the world.” Despite his talents, he did not belong to Chiang’s inner circle, and his tendency to countermand orders when he considered the situation in the field warranted it, earned him nothing but scorn from the upper echelons, and soon found himself sidelined to secondary roles.

Pai Chung-Hsi

As well as squandering the potential of promising individuals such as Chung-hsi, the KMT leadership promoted many individuals who were unqualified. For example Cheng Chi’en, was appointed vice-chief alongside Chung-hsi based solely on the consideration of the numerically impressive numbers of Hunanese troops he commanded, yet as Liu states “during his command he did nothing of significance until switching sides in 1949.” Another example of the internal politics within the KMT command structure was the appointment of General Hsu Yang-chiang who was appointed chief of the department of military operations, a role immensely vital for the war effort, yet was a man of “neither conspicuous talent or personality.”

Martin Wilbur and Julie How argue that flexibility and quality not only defined the leadership of the CCP but were rather “…outstanding characteristics of the Communist approach to mass organization,” and that by implementing various policies s in order to integrate itself into the framework of the countryside, the CCP laid the foundation for its eventual success. The CCP directed all their efforts into gaining positions in the leadership of peasant movements in rural China, in which “party cells should be organized in every single lowest-level peasant association to be the nucleus in guiding the activities of the association.” The CCP also instituted moderate land reform which included reductions in rents, yet which simultaneously won the support of the peasants and did not alienate local power holders, instead integrating them into local Communist administrations.

The CCP realised that the first contact most people would have with the Party would be via the army, and therefore undertook extensive efforts in order to ensure tight discipline amongst its armed forces as well as create sensible policies in order to win over the rural population. The core of the CCP’s policy concerning the military-civilian relations can be summarised in Mao’s Eight Points. The Eight Points instructed soldiers to pay for everything used or consumed, return all borrowed items, pay for damages, not to swear or hit civilians, not to damage crops, not to take advantage of women and not to mistreat captives. These policies allowed the CCP to build support amongst the rural populations of China, which in turn led to increased approval rates and increased numbers of army volunteers as well as helping to dissuade citizens from reporting Communists to the KMT government. These policies were especially effective considering the fact that the KMT remained aloof towards the populace, never really attempted to establish a support base, and whose troops had a reputation for brutality and poor discipline.

In order to counter the material superiority and higher troop numbers of the KMT, the Red Army developed a mobile warfare strategy. J. Hans Van de Ven argues that it was the superior military tactics of the CCP which led to the Communist victory in 1949, citing the use of Red Army’s use of guerrilla tactics. The tactics of the Red Army was based on the realisation that “land could be retaken at a later date, [whereas] men could not be brought back to life.” The CCP used the mountainous terrain to their advantage, engaging in hit and run tactics (as well as nocturnal attacks), opting to retreat when the enemy advanced and attack them when they camped or withdrew. This strategy was due to the fact that the Red Army didn’t have the strength to fight a traditional land war; however the adoption of mobile warfare tactics and focusing on destroying armies regardless of location proved highly successful against the KMT’s emphasis on trench warfare, Prussian style prepared fortifications and territorial control. The emphasis on territory and the occupation of land is clearly demonstrated in the rhetoric used by Chiang for he states that “If we [KMT] allow one inch more of our territory to be lost, or our sovereignty to be again infringed we shall be guilty of committing an unpardonable offense against our race.”

Chinese Civil War: KMT Vs CCP

While the actions of leaders and the sound socio-political and military policies of the CCP greatly contributed to their victory, one cannot ignore the role that external forces and geography played in shifting the balance between the CCP and the KMT. Yang notes that traditionally China’s introverted and conservative north has been characterized by political unrest and revolutionary zeal, as opposed to the more extroverted and educated south. Due to the tradition of resistance and rebellion in the north of the country, the CCP found ample ground to spread its message and recruit members and soldiers to their cause. The Japanese invasion also created a power vacuum in the north with the KMT focusing mainly on the south, thus facilitating a situation in which dissenters and opponents of the Japanese were inextricably drawn to the Communists, who represented the only viable alternative to Japanese rule in northern China.

Van de Ven takes the role of the Japanese and the effects of geography even further by stating that the Japanese invasion was hugely beneficial for the CCP. Van de Ven states that the Japanese invasion significantly weakened the KMT government, for the majority of the fighting occurred in the KMT controlled south and east of the country. After seven years of fighting the KMT government was on the verge of collapse, and its weakness was demonstrated during the spring and summer of 1944. In April the Japanese launched Operation Ichigo, and within the span of five months had conquered the provinces of Henan and Hunan, cleared two major railroads of KMT forces and invaded the provinces of Guangxi and Guizhou. Van de Ven argues that by the end of the war the KMT’s military capabilities and ability to sustain another prolonged war were severely diminished, thereby facilitating the Communist victory four years later.

The Chinese Civil War was one of the longest and bloodiest conflicts of the 20th century; spanning twenty-two years and costing the lives of twenty million people and leaving another fifty million homeless. The success of the Communists was due to a wide range of factors, some the product of dedicated leadership and smart policy choices, others the products of chance and circumstance. The CCP greatly benefited from the shrewd leadership of Mao, Zhou Enlai and others, who in turn created party polices that used common sense and a highly attuned sense of practicality. These policies in turn helped to implement measures which solidified public support as well fully maximized the potential of their military enforces in order to engage and defeat a militarily superior force.

J.D. Luedi is a listener from Switzerland and contributing writer for

Images & minor edits by Dana

As a history, international relations and politics nerd, its great to find an outlet like this to hear the rantings of my ego echoed so eloquently by Dana. I am a Canadian-Swiss citizen, bilingual (English, German) I love reading and sincerly wished more people would pick up a book on a regular basis - especially one other than those allegedly penned by some divinity